Women in 1900

Despite the activities of the Suffragettes and the support of the Labour Party and some members of the Liberal Party, women still had very few rights in 1900 and certainly no political rights. In fact, the activities of the Suffragettes lost women the support of many people, including women, who viewed what they did with alarm. 

At the start of the Twentieth Century, women had a very stereotypical role in British society. If married, they  stayed at home to look after the children while their husband worked and brought in a weekly wage. If single, they did work which usually involved some form of service such as working as a waitress, cooking etc. Many young women were simply expected to get married and have children. The term “spinster”, though not a term of outright abuse, was still seen as having some form of stigma attached to it……that you were not good enough to get a husband etc.

A table of employment gives an example of where women worked in 1900 : 

Type of employment Number of women employed
Domestic Servants 1,740,800
Teachers 124,000
Nurses 68,000
Doctors 212
Architects 2

The table clearly shows in which direction women were expected to go should they have work. Many poorly educated young ladies simply worked for a large household as a servant. From here they could train to work in a kitchen but it is highly unlikely that they would have become the head of a kitchen as this was still the ‘territory’ of the male.

Even “Teachers = 124,000” is somewhat misleading as female teachers nearly all worked in junior or nursery schools. What we would now call secondary schools were staffed by male teachers.

Towards the end of the C19th, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first lady to qualify to be a doctor (GP). She then faced huge obstacles making progress in her profession. Men would not go to her simply because she was female , whereas, women usually kept with the way it was done then – they continued seeing a male GP. It took years for Anderson to succeed.

For decades women’s progress in British society was haunted by the words of Queen Victoria:

 “Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally different duties and vocations.” 


Coming from the most famous woman in the world at the time, men in power used these words to hinder the advance women had made. By 1900, women had been granted some improvements in their lifestyle via the law courts – it was only in 1891 that women were told that they could not be forced to live with a man if they did not want to – but because nearly all women were reliant on their husbands for a source of money, many women did live in miserable marriages. The myth that Victorian Britain was the time of great family values in that the family unit stayed together, is just that – a myth. Many wives could not leave their husbands even if they wanted to, simply because they did not have the financial independence that was needed to survive at the time. Also a divorced woman was shunned by society and treated as an outcast. With these obstacles, many women were forced to stay in unhappy marriages.

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